Inspired living

Can empathy and compassion be learned?

Pair holding hands softly

Credit: 123RF

All is quiet on New Year’s Day…now, there’s a line to begin a song with for any budding rock or pop lyricists out there. Oh wait… it may have been done already. Well anyway, it is a quiet time on New Year’s Day and it offers a chance for reflection. As you contemplate the world as it has existed over the past year it is hard to avoid thoughts of the various wars and crises that have led to enormous numbers of displaced people globally. A report released by the UNHCR in late 2015 showed that the number of refugees, asylum-seekers, and internally displaced people worldwide has, for the first time since World War II, exceeded 50 million people. Of those 51.2 million displaced people 16.7 million people were refugees and 1.1 million were asylum seekers with the rest being internally displaced people. Of course with so many people moving across borders xenophobia has been unleashed in a big way. The fear of the stranger is in our collective consciousness like never before but when you hear those small minds preaching intolerance you should take heart from a new study showing that empathy for strangers is something that can be learned.

The stronger the positive experience with the stranger, the stronger the empathy as shown by brain activity.

The new study measured brain activation in people who had positive experiences with members of their own team (in-group members) or a member from another group (out-group member). During the experiment subjects could receive painful shocks to the back of their hand but they also knew that a member of their own group or a member of another group could pay money to spare them pain. Brain activation while watching either a person from one’s own group or another group was recorded before and after these experiences.

Before the experiments brain activity was weaker when they watched a member of another group experience pain than a member from their own group. However, just a few positive experiences with someone from a different group increased empathic brain activity if pain was inflicted on someone from another group. The stronger the positive experience with the stranger, the stronger the empathy as shown by brain activity.

A lot of the challenges we face globally right now, and for most of human history, arise from lack of empathy for the “other” or the “stranger”. Knowing that we can increase empathy for strangers through a few positive experiences offers something of a blueprint for the future and more than a little hope.


Terry Robson

Terry Robson is the Editor-in-Chief of WellBeing and the Editor of EatWell.